Don’t expect campaign finance reform to reduce polarization

July 23

Don’t mistake this for good will among these guys. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A number of analysts have suggested that a promising route to ameliorating the dysfunctional governing associated with extreme partisan polarization is through rather than around the political parties. A post earlier this week on this blog — Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner’s “Want to reduce polarization? Give parties more money” –  responded to our paper on “Party Polarization and Campaign Finance,”  released recently by the Brookings Institution.

We hoped our paper might freshen a long-running debate on campaign finance regulation. Our review of parties in campaigns and their adaptability in recent decades — such as to the ban on soft money and the rise of “outside” spending groups — casts doubt on any golden age of political parties in decades past and refutes widespread claims of their contemporary decline. We questioned the supposed link between party leaders’ control of campaign resources and their mastery of party discipline in Congress and state legislatures. (La Raja and Schnaffner mistakenly took our description of others’ assertion of that link as our own.)

We argued that parties should be seen as expansive networks with common values, ideologies and interests, rather than as circumscribed formal organizations. This conception better captures today’s complex campaign environment in which a variety of actors participate in funding campaigns. We also found that all donors, small, large and super-wealthy, who together comprise a relative sliver of the public, shared a common interest in advancing the political causes they hold dear.

We concluded that campaign finance reform was a weak tool for reducing partisan polarization, especially of the asymmetric variety that dominates our politics today. Giving more (or less) money to the formal parties would make little difference. Nor would significantly increasing the number of small donors diminish the tribalism between the parties. Rationales for pursuing various campaign finance reforms may be compelling, but diminishing party polarization does not number among them.

La Raja and Schaffner’s critique focuses on our claim that giving additional resources to party organizations would not reduce polarization.  They argue that unrestricted party finance of candidates has a moderating effect in state legislatures. We contend that in recent decades national party support for candidates has grown substantially and has been supplemented by a number of organizations that function as party affiliates or allies, yet polarization in Congress has intensified. La Raja and Schaffner present the state experience as a counter to our findings. We’ve read their post carefully but are not persuaded.

LaRaja and Schaffner limit their analysis to contributions to incumbents and find that issue and business groups give to a wider range of incumbents than do parties, which concentrate their funds on moderates. This conforms to the long-established patterns identified by political scientists. Business groups tend to pursue access-oriented strategies, giving to strategically placed members on both sides of the aisle — albeit often favoring Republicans over Democrats, particularly when Republicans hold the legislative majority. Issue groups support candidates who share their policy preferences or ideological predispositions. Most groups tend to give the bulk of their funds to safe incumbents.

In contrast, parties pursue a different strategy. As La Raja and Schaffner observe, parties “put the highest priority on winning elections.” This is a characteristic that has been clearly demonstrated in recent decades, particularly at the national level. Parties concentrate their resources on those candidates contesting seats considered essential for winning control of a legislative majority, including incumbents at risk of defeat and challengers with strong prospects of winning, particularly in open seat contests.

While La Raja and Schaffner only examine contributions, this approach also guides other forms of party support, including unlimited independent expenditures. Their analysis suggests that those candidates who have faced electoral risk are primarily moderates, which makes sense given districting practices and very high levels of party voting. Those incumbents in purple districts or in districts that have changed, creating dissonance between the member’s views and those of voters, are the most likely targets in the quest for majority control. Since these officeholders have tended to be moderates, parties have focused their resources on these candidates. Groups also give to moderates, as LaRaja and Schaffner’s analysis indicates, since they too have an interest in which party controls a legislature, but their pattern of giving is more expansive and extends to members further out on the ends of the ideological spectrum.

But this does not mean that parties opt to support moderates rather than liberal or conservative candidates, which remains an open question. To support this broader claim, the authors would have to provide more than a partial portrait of party support and include a consideration of challengers, since parties typically allocate a substantial share of their election resources to challengers who have a strong prospect of winning, particularly when the party does not hold the legislative majority. As is evident from the behavior in congressional races, parties will support liberal or conservative contenders if they have a realistic prospect of winning.

Does party support for moderates reduce legislative polarization, and do campaign finance laws matter in this regard? La Raja and Schaffner compare ideological polarization in 20 professionalized legislatures in states with no limits on party giving versus states with limits. The graph indicates a greater polarization in the states with limits, but no causal link to campaign finance laws is demonstrated and, interestingly, there is a greater share of moderate legislators in states with limits.

In practice, parties may spend unlimited sums independently in support of a candidate, so the role of constraints is restricted to the contributions parties may receive and make. The link between party financial practices and regulatory regimes is often a matter of strategy rather than law, and the evidence offered in their response certainly falls well short of making a case that greater party resources would reduce the polarization that undermines the capacity to govern. A striking illustration is the recent behavior of Republican legislatures in Texas and North Carolina, two of the states coded by the authors as having no limits on party finance. If that is the moderation that unlimited party financing produces in the states, we best look elsewhere for promising models of depolarization.

We would be delighted if the governing problems associated with polarized and intensely competitive parties operating in our constitutional system could be assuaged by reducing or eliminating restrictions on party finance. Unfortunately, we see little evidence that such a policy change would be successful.

Thomas Mann is W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.  Anthony Corrado is Professor of Government at Colby College.

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David Karol · July 23